Drop an alien into the Jacobson Complex on Thursday evening, one with zero knowledge of quarterbacks or Iowa State or football or, shoot, even earth, and our extraterrestrial friend might come away from the experience convinced Sam Richardson is the Cyclones' starter.
The one with the backwards hat and the baggy long-sleeve beach tee shirt and earbuds plugged in, that is.
Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads spoke glowingly about Richardson, as did quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy. Each tried to remain coy. Grant Rohach, the other QB in contention, said Saturday's scrimmage would be pivotal. And Richardson himself?
"I feel I'm in a good spot right now," the junior said. "I'm getting a lot more reps so I feel comfortable where I'm at and hopefully finish off the week well."
Pressed for a sound-byte at the end of his interview — "Have the coaches told you who the starter is?" — Richardson struggled to not give the big secret away.
"Ummmm, no," he said. "Not really. I don't want to say anything before they do."
The sly smiles, the measured choice of words, it was clear Thursday night who was ahead in a quarterback competition that was stagnant through the spring and until the beginning of the week, neither participant separating. Richardson turned it on, though. Combine the wink-winks of last night with the reporting of AllCyclones.com early Thursday afternoon, that a program insider said Richardson was separating from Rohach, and everything else we've heard since then — one source said he's running away with it, another evoked the Maker of Heaven and Earth when discussing just how good Richardson's been this week.
"I've seen great improvement from both of them," Rhoads said. "That's the fun thing. Not only is it a true competition; we've got an elevation of play."
There are three factors at play here: Richardson's confidence, Richardson's arm and Richardson's decision-making.
Battered and bruised on the field in 2013 (and off of it, if you believe the message board moped rumors) Richardson's health is naturally better now than it was then, and that allows him to be less skittish and more sure of himself.
"Definitely just refocused myself and got the confidence back," Richardson said.
To further illustrate just how important that is, we note that Rhoads said the best game Richardson's ever played was 2012 at Kansas, when he threw four touchdowns off the bench. No mention of arm strength or touch or accuracy. Just the mental state of the quarterback.
"That was a relaxed and composed Sam Richardson, with no worries throughout the week because he didn't have any idea he'd play one snap," Rhoads said. "He came off the bench and was relaxed and executed the offense. To me, that's the game."
An ankle injury to start the 2013 season kept Richardson from stepping into his throws. In turn, he spun out a weaker football. Iowa State's execution in the deep passing game left much to be desired; the Cyclones' longest gain, a 97-yarder versus Texas, came off a slant route to Quenton Bundrage, who benefited from one slipping Longhorn defender and another who took a horrendous angle.
Richardson and Rohach bulked up in the winter, like bears in hibernation. Coming out of Winter Park as a member of the 2011 class, Richardson was 185 pounds. He's up to 221 now.
The weight gain and added arm strength have been paramount in Richardson catching up to Rohach, who received first snaps to begin spring and fall camps.
"Grant's had more velocity to Sam prior to right now — now I'd say they're comparable," Rhoads said.
"He's stronger, got more velocity on his ball because of that. He's throwing a more accurate ball right now. The ball's come out quicker than it ever has with him."
Then there's the decision-making, which includes everything from sliding to knowing when to run to moving through progressions in the pocket.
Iowa State would like its quarterback to mostly sit in the pocket and deliver the ball to its bevy of playmakers. But as Rhoads said," there comes a time in the pocket where running's your best option. In this offense the quarterback has to be a running threat via called plays."
Sturdy summed it up nicely.
"We're just trying to get Sam to use the offense," he said. "On his movement and in the throwing game, it's, OK, keep the eyes downfield and on his progressions, making decision before he actually runs with the football. That's been the growth and the challenge … We want them to look for work as they're moving around in the pocket and try to find throws as well."
At July's Big 12 Media Days, Rhoads set an Aug. 16 date to find a quarterback. The Cyclones scrimmage tomorrow — Rohach needs to light the world on fire to take the job — and won't announce a starter until Monday, Rhoads said, but every indication is the team has met the deadline.